Science is everywhere—especially in your purified water


If you’ve been following Aquastructure, our monthly blog series that breaks down all the details about how we bring fresh drinking water to our customers, then you know we put a great deal of effort into purifying our water.

From filtering out dirt and debris to zapping away bacteria and adjusting pH levels, we closely monitor our water at the source, during treatment and after treatment to ensure the final product meets and exceeds regulatory requirements.

In the past, we’ve discussed the different types of filtration processes for both surface water treatment and groundwater treatment, but we wanted to dig even deeper into the scientific details. We sat down with Director of Treatment for Aqua Pennsylvania Matt Miller, whose team is responsible for optimizing the treatment of drinking water and wastewater throughout their state, to clear things up. (Pun intended.)

Welcome to the fantastic world of filtration!

If you take one thing away from this blog, we hope it’s the importance of coagulants in the filtration process. Coagulants are vital chemicals that help tiny pieces of debris particles in surface water stick together and form larger clumps so they can easily be removed from the water.

All those organic particles that creep into the surface water have a negative charge. The coagulants, meanwhile, have a positive charge, meaning that they act like magnets and repel against each other when combined. When this happens, we’re able to neutralize those unwanted particles. They begin to stick together, which makes it easy to flush them out of the water.

Remember these diagrams? Behold: Coagulation and filtration!

Coagulants aren’t the only substances working wonders on our water, though. There’s also sand, gravel, and anthracite, which more or less act as filters.

“If you have ever been to the beach, poured a pail of water onto the sand, and watched it disappear, you have witnessed filtration,” Miller explained.

Just like sand at the beach, in a water filter, the water moves down through tiny pores in sand and gravel, trapping all of the little particles that don’t need to be in our drinking water. From there, the filtered water flows through an ion-exchange filter that trades undesirable contaminants, like calcium and magnesium ions, for harmless substances, such as potassium or sodium. 

Aerate, chlorinate, repeat.

Sometimes, the pH levels in surface water and groundwater are a little out of whack. That’s because when carbon dioxide is in the water, it forms a weak acid called carbonic acid. Carbonic acid isn’t very fun for the body to digest, so we implement a process called aeration, which is a fancy term for the addition of air into the water. This removes any carbon dioxide and normalizes pH levels.

Last, but definitely not least, is chlorination. According to Miller, the use of chlorine is the most common and effective process for disinfecting drinking water. This powerful substance is used to kill bacteria and prevent the spread of waterborne diseases. However, too much chlorine is no good, so our operators carefully monitor the amount of chlorine added to each batch of water. 

Welcome to chlorination nation!

How does chlorine work, you may ask?

Well, it all comes down to the fact that chlorine, which is an oxidizing agent, has a neutral charge, meaning that it’s able to sneak into the negatively-charged pathogens and destroy them so they don’t multiply and make us sick. 

With all this talk of positive, negative and neutral charges, do you feel like you’re back in elementary school science class? We sure do!

It’s time to get sludgy. 

Now that we’ve covered the science of our drinking water, let’s talk about wastewater. We’ve already walked you through what happens to the water after you flush, so you’ll remember that there’s some pretty intensive cleaning done by itty-bitty microscopic organisms. This wastewater cleaning process is appropriately termed The Activated Sludge Process. (Can you think of a cooler name? We sure can’t.)

“Most times, we think of sludge as a bad thing, but in this case, sludge is a community of bacteria that each have a particular function,” Miller says. “The sole purpose for these bacteria is to eat and reproduce.” 

The sludge loves to eat all the not-so-yummy leftovers in our wastewater, like ammonia and nitrate. Interestingly, depending on what type of contaminants the sludge needs to eat, Aqua will monitor the bacteria’s access to oxygen, since the gas can affect the processes. By the end of their meal, the bacteria are full and happy, and our water is ready to head back to the local rivers or streams. 

All this technical talk has us sure of one thing: Science is all around us, from the water we drink to the processes and technologies that make it clean enough to do so. 

Thanks for joining us on another part of our Aquastructure journey. We hope you’ve learned as much as we have!

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​Employees feeling a ripple effect

At Aqua, we believe our mission, vision and core values shape us as an exceptional company. They enable us to go above and beyond, making a positive impact on water, the environment, our communities and our work together. The Ripple Effect initiative represents our continued commitment to reinforcing these ideals – now and in the future. There are four areas that contribute to these efforts: volunteering, Aqua's charitable trust, work-life balance and knowledge sharing. Here are stories from just a few of the Aqua employees who are feeling a ripple effect.

Steve Dunnahoe
Aqua Texas 
Work-life balance
Aqua understands encouraging healthy work-life balance is good for employees and their families.

Aqua Texas Business Development Manager Steve Dunnahoe and his family celebrated a milestone this year when his son Chase graduated from high school as valedictorian. When Steve and his wife, Susan, sent a letter to the school thanking everyone who taught their son over the years, the principal told Steve that his regular visits to Chase's elementary school helped set a foundation for his son's success.

"Chase's teachers told me that a big part of any young person's success is support from their parents," Dunnahoe said. "When Chase was in first through sixth grades, I made it a priority to go to his school cafeteria and have lunch with him and his classmates as often as I could. I believe his current success is in part because of my consistent presence at school, and I was able to do that because Aqua's Fort Worth office is less than a mile from his school." 

Chase's teachers said his father's support helped motivate him to become a stronger student.

"This isn't a utility success story," said Dunnahoe, "but it's a success story about how my working at Aqua helped my son get where he is."

Chase Dunnahoe will attend the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas this fall.

Steve Dunnahoe and family at son Chase's high school graduation.

Shenita St. Clair
Aqua America
Work-life balance
Aqua Call Center Representative Shenita St. Clair celebrates her first anniversary at Aqua this month. Having worked in other call centers for more than 10 years, St. Clair, who works in Cary, North Carolina, said she feels like her dream has come true at Aqua.

"Aqua puts in the effort to help employees succeed," said St. Clair. "I have flexibility in terms of handling operations and making changes. My work here is recognized, and I feel appreciated and valued." St. Clair said she appreciates Aqua's training and direct interaction with supervisors.

St. Clair has two boys, aged 10 and 11. As a single parent, she said she appreciates Aqua's Monday through Friday work week for call center representatives. St. Clair also attends Durham Technical Community College, where she's pursuing a degree in office administration with a minor in accounting.

St. Clair was one of the representatives who temporarily relocated to Bryn Mawr when a fire in the building that houses Aqua's southern call center was uninhabitable due to the smell of smoke. While in Bryn Mawr, St. Clair and her co-workers had the opportunity to meet Aqua's Chairman and CEO Chris Franklin, who thanked them for their extraordinary service. St. Clair noted that this is the first job where she's been able to meet senior leaders. 

"It's comforting to say I work at a company that really cares for me," she said.
Shenita St. Clair
Jeff Bickel
Aqua Pennsylvania
Knowledge sharing & Aqua Charitable Trust
Aqua donates money from its charitable trust to enrich lives throughout the communities it serves and in developing countries, and to advocate for the environment. Over the years, Aqua has formed important partnerships with community-based nonprofit organizations such as Villanova University.

Aqua's partnership with Villanova University's College of Engineering provides engineering resources, water infrastructure expertise and financial support for the school's international service work. As part of this partnership, senior leadership, engineers and water quality experts with Aqua traveled with Villanova faculty and students to Nicaragua and Panama to provide mentorship opportunities, hands-on water quality expertise and foundation support.

Aqua Pennsylvania's Director of Production Jeff Bickel traveled twice to Nicaragua to help build water systems for a community and a school. Bickel said he was glad to have the chance to serve. 

"When I was asked if I'd like to go to Nicaragua with the Villanova students, I thought, when will you ever have an opportunity to see Nicaragua? And I liked the idea of helping the community deliver clean water to its families," he said.

Bickel said the work was difficult but rewarding, and he enjoyed the experience. 

"The students and the Nicaraguans were awesome," said Bickel. "The community has the most resourceful people I've ever met." 

Bickel also noted that he formed bonds with the other two Aqua employees on his trips.
Jeff Bickel and Aqua Illinois Director of Operations Colton Janes in Nicaragua.

Jennifer Knotts
Aqua Indiana
Aqua Indiana employees and their family members have made the Water for People 5K Run & Walk in Indianapolis an annual tradition. Water for People is a nonprofit international organization founded by the American Water Works Association to support developing countries in creating sustainable drinking water and sanitation facilities, and in general health and hygiene education.

Jennifer Knotts, administrative assistant for Aqua Indiana President Tom Bruns, spearheads this effort for Aqua employees statewide. 

"Tom has been an active participant for many years," said Knotts. "He asked me if I wanted to help, and I said yes! I've enjoyed knowing we help raise money for clean water for those who don't have it. It's an amazing feeling knowing you can help others with something most take for granted." 

Knotts handles all of the registrations for Aqua Indiana employees and their families. She also designs tee shirts for their team and coordinates meet-up times and locations. More than 50 Aqua participants took part in last year's event.

Bruns and his wife Sandy first took part in the Water for People walk in 2012. 

"I was so inspired by the cause and event that I invited employees from all of Aqua Indiana to participate in the following years," said Bruns. "We eventually entered the Aqua team in the corporate challenge competition. This has been a very rewarding experience for myself, my family and my colleagues. It's always well attended, and everyone enjoys a great morning walk along the canal in downtown Indianapolis."

Aqua Indiana sponsors the event and pays for all registrations for Aqua employees and their families and friends.
Jennifer Knotts and her family at the Water for People 5K Run & Walk.

Aqua's Ripple Effect initiative was introduced in November 2017. Read more about Aqua's Ripple Effect initiative.
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